How Rapid Urbanization Threatens Human Populations: Three Effects of a Moving World

Devon Reeser


Modernization goes hand in hand with urbanization – the richer the country, the greater percentage of its population lives in urban areas.

Modernization in the global south is happening extremely quickly, and with it, rapid urbanization. In 2008, the world reached the landmark of more than half its population living in cities or towns versus rural environments. In 2013, that percentage was 53% according to World Bank statistics.

A view of a suburban subdivision being developed in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Image: USGS, public domain.
A view of a suburban subdivision being developed in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Image: USGS, public domain.

The challenges that cities face to house, water, and feed all of these new residents are a hot topic globally, so much so that 22,000 attended the UN’s World Urban Forum in Colombia this past April.

Though strain on city infrastructure is an important topic, what is less discussed, but equally pressing, are the threats to human populations from such a quick shift in human geography and the abandonment of centuries-old subsistence farming life.

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Here are 3 fundamental issues to land and ecology, health, and culture that cannot be ignored.

Redefining Food as a Global Commodity

What happens to land when people abandon or sell it to move to the city? Logically one would correlate a turn to urban settlement, but this is only true for about 1% of land globally.[i]

Every urban area is different, but a trend in the most rapidly urbanizing areas is increased intensified agriculture. There is a direct correlation between urbanization and land being altered for commercial, intensified food production.[ii]

More people purchasing food makes it a commodity, and big business is cashing in on the economic opportunity.

An agriculture field in California. Photo: U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain
An agriculture field in California. Photo: U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain

More than 20 million hectares of previously small agriculture holdings have been long term leased or sold to foreign commercial agriculture producers, in mainly Latin America and Africa.[iii] Big business agriculture uses the land for highest profit, not local food consumption needs, growing cash commodity crops for international or home markets.

The result is not enough local, affordable foods and a billion of the world’s poorest suffering from malnutrition, as well as farming practices (monoculture, petro-chemical use, etc.) that contribute to climate change and biodiversity loss.

Map of farming systems in Africa.  Source: FAO-United Nations.
Map of farming systems in Africa. Source: FAO-United Nations.

Health Degradation from Prepackaged Eating

What are people eating if they aren’t growing their own food?

As people move to cities and abandon agriculture, two trends make healthy eating harder: reduced availability per urban dweller of locally grown fresh foods, and increased consumption of pre-packaged foods high in sugar and fat. Both lead to accelerated diabetes and heart disease rates where rapid urbanization is happening.

Photo of fruits and vegetables in a store.
Access to healthy foods is critical.

For example, a comprehensive study by Ambady Ramachandran and medical colleagues (2008) in India, where urbanization is happening faster than anywhere else in the world, linked urbanization as the direct cause of a 6% increase of diabetes over 6 years as well as a significant rise in heart disease.[iv]

Youth Brain Waste and Degradation in Rural Culture

What happens to the rural populations left behind as people move?

Youth are the ones moving, and they leave their ageing relatives behind. Cities are young – 60% of the global urban population by 2030 will be under 18.[v]

Those who stay in rural areas are mostly older populations. Youth that can leave do, for education and the hope of employment.

The UNPD’s Aging Profiles (2013) predicts a five percent increase in rural aging populations from 1980 to 2015 (8-13%), with a 25:100 dependency ratio of older people to working people by 2050 (currently 12:100).

What that means is that older populations are increasing and staying in their rural homes, and they do not have adequate support to care for them now or in the future. When youth leave, the educated class leaves – and along with it leadership and a sustainable future for the rural villages and families left behind.

What is more, there are not nearly enough jobs for all of these youth, creating what scholars coin not only brain drain from rural areas, but also “brain waste”. [vi]

Talented youth move to cities, receive an education even in many cases, and then cannot find work. About 13% of urban global youth are unemployed, according to the UN-Habitat project. So, not only are they not helping their aging parents and grandparents back home, but they are not producing in their best years.

While urbanization is hailed as the modern savior of a growing global populations and its associated strain on the earth’s finite resources, and it very well could be, problems resulting from the quick shift in human geography, most notably to the land itself and food production, to health of urban dwellers, and to youth migration and rural culture, need to be considered when hailing urbanization in and of itself a solution.


[i] Satterthwaite, David, Gordon McGranahan, and Cecilia Tacoli. 2010. Urbanization and its implications for food and farming. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 365(1554): 2809-20.

[ii] Jiang, Li, Xiangzheng Deng, and Karen C. Seto. 2013. The impact of urban expansion on agricultural land use in China. Land Use Policy 35: 33-39.

[iii]Magdoff, Fred. 2012. Food as a Commodity. Monthly Review 63(8).

[iv]Ramachandran, Ambady, MD, Simon Mary, BSC, et al. 2008. High Prevalence of Diabetes and Cardiovascular Risk Factors Associated with Urbanization in India. Diabetes Care 31(5):893-98.

[v]UN-Habitat. 2012. Harnessing the Dual Global Trends of Urbanization and the Demographic Youth Bulge. Issue Paper.

[vi] Battistella, Graziano and Karen Anne Sun Liao. 2013. Youth Migration from the Philippines: Brain Drain and Brain Waste. UNICEF Philippines.

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Devon Reeser